When we are young, we learn about health, wellness and disease from our parents, family members and friends. As we get older, we discover more varied sources of information, including the news media, entertainment venues (such as television and movies), health care professionals and, of course, our life experiences. More recently, individuals have started to use the Internet to obtain health information. And health-insurance plans have become increasingly active in providing health information to their members.
Despite these additional avenues for accessing health information, inaccurate (although often innocuous) information continues to be parlayed — whether passed from parent to child, or from website to website. Medical myths, like urban legends, remain even in the information age. In fact, as more and more sources become available, common medical myths might become more prevalent rather than be weeded out. Myths, after all, are replicated half-truths — told and retold to each new generation.
For example, did your parents ever tell you not to go out without a coat because you'll catch pneumonia? Or did they say not to sit by an open window because the draft might make you "catch your death of cold"?
There may be good reasons to bundle up before heading out, or for closing the window on a cold day, but they have nothing to do with avoiding a cold (despite the fact that many of these illnesses are more common in winter). Colds and pneumonia have long been known to be caused by infections (viruses cause colds, while bacteria cause most cases of pneumonia), and brief exposure to cold air is unlikely to lead to these illnesses. If someone does start coughing or wheezing soon after exposure to the cold or wind, cold-induced asthma is probably much more likely than any sort of infection.
Why Do Some Medical Myths Persist?
Often, people are apt to trust information from those they admire or those they are close to, such as parents or a respected teacher. Alternatively, what is now a myth may well have once been a fact. For example, in the era before infections were proven to cause illness, there was no reason to question the prevailing wisdom of the time.
Other myths persist because they are intuitive, reasonable and difficult to disprove. Before viruses were discovered, the prevalence of colds and pneumonia during the winter probably led to an assumption that they were causally related.
Finally, some misinformation promotes a positive end result even when the reasoning is faulty. For example, knowing the actual cause of pneumonia may not be as important as using pneumonia as the motivation to get your children to put on their coats before heading out the door.
How Do You Separate Truth From Fiction?
How do you question what might appear to be expert information? Such dogmatic health information is more common than you may think and it is not always easy to identify something that is generally accepted but wrong.
In medical school, I was taught that half of everything I would learn there was wrong but no one knew which half was which! Keeping an open mind, asking questions and sticking with reliable sources are good starting points for deciding what information to trust and what to discard. Realize that the next time you hear someone say "everyone knows that," you may be hearing another medical myth.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.